As most European elections are called off, Poland pushes ahead

The presidential vote planned for next month may be neither free nor fair, say critics.

Warsaw, Poland – Despite mounting concerns about public safety, Poland’s elections scheduled for May 10 are set to go ahead. The Polish government insists that postponing the presidential vote would be premature, despite most other European countries exercising more caution in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If there are conditions to go to a shop, then there are also conditions to go to a polling station,” said President Andrzej Duda, the incumbent and the clear favourite to win.


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Yet many worry that such a vote would be neither free nor fair. More than 77 percent of Poles think it would be good for the presidential elections to be postponed for a year, according to pollster IBRiS.

An online petition to postpone the elections now has more than 270,000 signatures. Its author, Marcin Skubiszewski of the Election Observatory association, told Al Jazeera: “We want to put pressure on the government to change its decision.”

A free vote?

“It’s hard to speak of free elections,” when voters are faced with a choice between their health and their vote, lawyer and social activist Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram told Al Jazeera.

As it stands, only one-fifth of Poles would vote in the May elections, according to recent polls. On Tuesday evening, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party submitted legislation to Parliament to introduce universal postal voting.

The changes follow an amendment to extend postal voting to some categories of people, proposed during a late-night session on Friday. But amendments to the electoral code must be made at least six months before any elections, and the opposition has said the move violates electoral procedures and could invalidate the vote.

If the legislation passes, the 200,000 Polish voters living abroad – who worry that local restrictions and closed consular offices could exclude them from the vote – will be included in the postal scheme.

Anna, a 30-year-old Pole living in the United Kingdom, said that without the option of a postal vote, she would not be willing to risk infecting others at a polling station. “If the election goes ahead as planned, I will be effectively prevented from voting,” she said.

Meanwhile in France, Malgorzata Kanicka, a 27-year-old superyacht stewardess, worries that “this time there is no news about voting arrangements for us”.

“Our consulate in Nice is closed,” she told Al Jazeera. “Normally there are only a few places in the south of France where we can vote in elections, but given the lockdown in Nice, we are restricted in how far we can move from our house.”

Malgorzata Kanicka, Polish expatriate living in France

Asked if she’ll be voting, Kanicka said she would like to, but noted that other members of her family may be unable to do so. “As a doctor, my dad probably won’t be able to go, as he is one of the essential personnel needed in hospitals,” she said.

Kanicka is critical of the decision to hold the vote. “We had regional elections in France not so long ago, and the number of COVID-19 cases doubled because of it,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen in Poland.”

Monika Sikora in Belgium shares her concerns. “Getting to polling stations on election day will be a challenge, especially for people travelling between cities. It is also difficult to predict how Belgian police will react to long queues outside polling stations.”


A fair fight?

The official campaign period, which runs from February to May and usually involves candidates travelling the country, has this year mostly overlapped with the lockdown.

All candidates have moved their campaigns online, attracting limited media attention. On Sunday, the main opposition candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska called on the public to boycott the vote, and suspended her campaign.

In contrast, however, President Duda has been prominent on the front lines of the state emergency, with televised addresses to the nation and much-publicised hospital visits. A recent inspection at a factory producing hand sanitiser gathered criticism for looking like a campaign stunt.

“We have the classic problem of disjoining a campaigning candidate from a figure in public office. Andrzej Duda does not separate these two things,” said Skubiszewski.

“Public media are pursuing a very active propaganda campaign for Andrzej Duda”, with “the state administration also campaigning on his behalf”, he added.

Meanwhile, advocates of keeping the elections as scheduled argue any such advantage is overstated. “I would not say that the incumbent president is privileged by the suspension of campaigning,” said Bartlomiej Wroblewski, a Law and Justice (PiS) member of parliament.

President Duda “has been known to lead a very active campaign, and he is a generation younger than his main opponent,” Wroblewski told Al Jazeera.

Moreover, “the upcoming presidential elections are the fourth contest in the past year and a half,” he added. “In each election familiar arguments have been presented by all sides”.

Constitutional conundrum?

The current electoral set-up “breaches the Constitution for a number of reasons”, said Ryszard Piotrowski, a constitutional law professor at the University of Warsaw.

For one, the current government lockdown has several characteristics of a “state of emergency”, without one officially being declared. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, such a declaration would automatically lead to the postponement of elections to at least 90 days after it had been recalled.

“For these elections to take place, many thousands of people will be drafted into electoral commissions, which voters will also attend … which will lead to the virus spreading on an unprecedented scale,” said Piotrowski.

According to Piotrowski, “the Constitution requires the government to tackle epidemics – and that includes prevention”. Gregorczyk-Abram agrees: “Article 68 of the Constitution is very clear on this: citizens are entitled to protection of health”.

Many local authorities, on whom it falls to organise the elections, are pushing for postponement over public health concerns. Last week, Jacek Sutryk, mayor of Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth-largest city, said he would not be training members of electoral commissions.

Szymon Chojnowski, deputy mayor of Swidnica, a city in southwestern Poland, told Al Jazeera that “there is trouble assembling electoral commissions, as well as managing proper work conditions for them”.

On Monday, a senior figure from the ruling party, Ryszard Terlecki, responded by calling such local government actions “idiotic” and “anti-democratic”, and warned that national authorities would nominate replacements.

Full steam ahead

The Polish government’s refusal to delay elections has been all the more surprising given how it oversaw one of the toughest and speediest national shutdowns in Europe.

Bartlomiej Wroblewski, Law and Justice MP

On Tuesday, further restrictions were announced, including the closure of public recreation spaces, a requirement for children to be supervised by a guardian when leaving the house, and two-metre distancing rules for pedestrians.

Yet the government insists that cancelling the election would be premature. “In two weeks we will be able to realistically assess the situation,” Wroblewski told Al Jazeera. “If in late April the situation improves – children go back to school – then there is no reason to postpone the elections.”

Some, however, suspect the government is seeking to benefit politically from the shutdown, which analysts say has contributed to the incumbent’s lead in the polls.

The latest figures predict Duda winning in the first round with 54.6 percent of the vote. Given the edge, “perhaps politicians from his circles believe that it is better to hold elections now, rather than in the uncertain future”, said Piotrowski.

“Until the recent changes to the electoral code, I thought that the vote would not take place. That it was all a tug-of-war. But now, I am no longer certain,” concluded Gregorczyk-Abram.

According to official data, Poland now has 2,420 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 36 related deaths. The country, however, also has one of Europe’s lowest testing rates.

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